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China casts shadow over Sepuloni’s Pacific visit



Deputy Prime Minister and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs Carmel Sepuloni (Stuff Photo by Torika Tokalau)

Venu Menon
Wellington, April 18, 2023

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, in the midst of a five-day tour of the Pacific region, aims to make up for lost time due to Covid as she reinvigorates New Zealand’s ties with the Pacific Island nations.

Climate change is expected to dominate talks with regional leaders, but simmering tensions between China and the West will inevitably cast a shadow over the trip.

But the security pact signed between China and the Solomon Islands last year will likely figure on the agenda when Sepuloni meets Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

The treaty spawned international concern that Beijing was scouting to set up a military base in the region.

China’s push unleashed a flurry of diplomatic activity with the US hosting a Pacific leaders’ summit and pouring aid into the region. This resurgence of interest culminated in the US opening an Embassy in the Solomon Islands after a gap of three decades.

Expectations are high among Pacific leaders of US President Joe Biden visiting the region in the near future.

While Sepuloni has remained tight-lipped on whether the militarisation of the Indo Pacific region will be a talking point with Pacific leaders, the timing of her visit on the heels of a Western military alliance to augment Australia’s naval attack capability (AUKUS) would suggest the issue will likely come up for discussion.

Given that China sees the Aukus deal as a provocation, it would be naïve to rule the latest threat to the geopolitical stability of the Indo Pacific region as being a no-go area when Sepuloni sits down to chat with regional leaders.

However, Sepuloni has sought to deflect attention away from that hot-button issue.

“There’s a range of issues that will be front of mind,” Sepuloni said, adding, “Certainly when I met with specific leaders in February, it wasn’t so much anything to do with China that was front of mind or even discussed. It was climate change. It was labour mobility, it was education, it was a chat about the challenges that came with the global inflation and cost of living”

The deputy prime minister stressed re-engagement with the Pacific Island nations as the government’s foreign policy thrust in the region.

This is in line with the Pacific Reset, the policy shift towards the Pacific Islands launched by the Jacinda Ardern government in 2018, which emphasised “engagement, partnerships, collaboration and people-to-people measures.”

The Pacific Reset identifies New Zealand as being squarely within the Pacific region. It stresses the domestic and foreign policy overlap unique to New Zealand. For instance, Tokelauans, Cook Islanders and Niueans have New Zealand citizenship. Samoa, a former New Zealand trust territory, and Tonga, are linked to New Zealand by the presence of a vast diaspora.

The Pacific Reset recognises the influence of Australia, China, the US, France, the European Union, Japan and Taiwan in the Pacific region. But its foreign policy objective is to “influence Pacific Island countries to pursue their interests in a way that promotes New Zealand values, and mitigates the risks posed by partners with quite different value sets,” as per a statement issued by the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2018.

But New Zealand is not alone in recasting its Pacific policy. In 2018, Australia announced the Pacific Step-up. Indonesia announced its Pacific Elevation in 2019. The UK unrolled its Pacific Uplift programme in 2018. India’s Act East policy saw a new foreign policy interest in the region. And China extended its Belt and Road initiative into the Pacific region with some Pacific Forum member countries (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand) pledging their cooperation.

This convergence of foreign policy initiatives makes the Pacific region an emerging global hub of conflicting interest, with implications for regional stability.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington.

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